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Essay 3

Marilyn Monroe

“First Fig” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes and oh, my friends
What a lovely light it gives!

I have always had a degree of fascination for Marilyn Monroe, as many thousands of people have.  The perfect opportunity to research her came along in my film class in college.  I wrote this paper as my final project.  I hope you enjoy.  Following is a list of links to other Marilyn sites. – Lisa DeGroff

Marilyn Monroe is arguably one of the most widely known icons of the 20th
century, but for what reasons?  Her beauty?  Her tragic life? 
Her acting?  Perhaps a combination of these three elements created the
larger-than-life image the world maintains of Monroe.  Her wide blue eyes,
sensual red lips, and blonde cotton candy hair made her one of the most
photographed women of the century.  Her family history of mental illness,
young life in and out of foster homes, doomed marriages, and substance-abuse
problems created an aura of tragedy around her short life.  To many, her
acting would seem like the last reason that Monroe would be considered an
icon.  She constantly came off as the dumb blonde, the sex object, the
silly no-named girl.  However, Monroe was a better actress than her directors,
producers, and co-stars had originally thought her to be.   George
Cukor, award-winning director of such films as My Fair Lady (1964), Little
Women (1933), and Adam’s Rib (1939), worked with Monroe in Let’s Make Love
(1960), was slated to work with her in Something’s Got to Give (1962), said of
Monroe, “She had this absolute unerring touch with comedy… she acted as if she
didn’t quite understand why it was funny.  Which is what made it so funny”

(Victor 65). Somehow through all the retakes, addictions, and issues with
self-confidence, Monroe came through as a comedic presence on the screen that
seems innocently funny, surprisingly spontaneous, sexually provocative, and
irresistibly magnetic.

Critics question the degree of talent that Monroe possessed and wonder at what
she could have become given different circumstances.  But as it stands,
Monroe was completely a product of the 1950’s movie studios and culture. 
The 1950’s have been referred to as the Golden Years.  Eisenhower was
President, the economy was booming after World War II, and the country was
flourishing.  However, many dark undercurrents were flowing beneath the
smooth surface.   Senator McCarthy and the HUAC headed up the hunt
for Communists within the country.  The Cold War began.  Nuclear
testing kept everyone wondering whether technology was getting out of
hand.  Rock ‘n’ Roll made waves across the country.  The Korean War
created a shadow over the happy times of the 50’s.  All of these
influenced the movies of the time.  But perhaps most influential to
Hollywood was the emergence of the television set.  Families could stay
home and watch their favorite programs for free instead of paying to see a long
film.  Hollywood moguls, producers, and directors were pushed to make
movies more diverting than television.

The 1950’s saw the production of several critically acclaimed movies. 
Billy Wilder, who would later go on to work with Monroe in the American Film
Institute’s #1 comedy, Some Like it Hot in 1959, started the decade in 1950
with Sunset Boulevard.  The movie is an example of “film noir,” a style
characterized by “disquieting editing, low-key lighting, night-for-night
shooting, subjective view shots, voice-over and flashback and oblique camera
set ups” (Quart and Auster 25).  Another characteristic of “film noir” is
the pervading feeling of paranoia, an emotion that was undercutting everyone in
the country (Quart and Auster 25).   To battle these negative and
pessimistic feelings, the big-screen musical came to life.  The first half
of the 1950’s saw Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Guys & Dolls, and Oklahoma!
(1955).  These movies seem to put onto film the optimistic and sugary
feelings that were covering the darker issues invading the country. 

Singin’ in the Rain presents a world “where despair and doubt do not exist and
where the happy ending continues to survive” (Quart and Auster 56).  These
are the types of movies people needed to see to keep believing that the world
was all right.

Not all movies were sugary and sweet like the musicals.  The 1950’s also
produced such classics with political and moral undertones as High Noon (1952),
On the Waterfront (1954), and The Steel Helmet (1951).  Epic and grandiose
films were produced to compete with the television such as Ben Hur (1959) and
The Ten Commandments (1956).  Films started portraying a vague sense of
unease and movie-goers were picking up on it.  However, “Neither Hollywood
nor the public were particularly open to films that took formal or intellectual
risks” (Quart and Auster 57).  Producers knew audiences wanted something
on the funnier side.

Comedians such as Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and
Lucille Ball found their way into films and television.  Audiences wanted
to see funny and light-hearted films to take their minds off of the political
and moral turmoil happening around them.  This genre of film is where
Monroe found her niche and the majority of her success, although she longed to
be known as a serious actress.

Monroe’s first starring role in a comedy was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
as the diamond-hunting, innocent-yet-sexy Lorelei Lee, a character that seemed
to become her trademark and launched Monroe into her glamorous stardom. 
It was followed directly by How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), which was not
nearly as successful though it boasted names like Lauren Bacall and Betty
Grable.  As many films throughout the years will illustrate, direction can
make all the difference as it did with these two Monroe movies.  According
to Samuel Stoddard in At-A-Glance Film Reviews, “The placement of the camera,
lighting, editing: these and all other technical areas of filmmaking can
successfully support a gag or undermine it completely.”   Howard
Hawkes understands this concept in Gentlemen, whereas Jean Negulesco didn’t as
much in Millionaire, and it shows.  Monroe herself also understood the
nature of comedy.  As Geoge Cukor noted, she seemed as if she didn’t know
why her lines and actions were funny.  Her innocence and ditzy portrayals
are extremely believable.  However, Monroe knew how to manipulate the
script to inject even more humor.  The famous Lorelei line, “I can be
smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it” is entirely Monroe’s
creation (Victor 118).  In fact, this line could describe Monroe in real
life.  Many people think that she played the dumb blonde so well because
she actually was a dumb blonde.  That witty line clearly contradicts that
notion.

One of the most noticeable things about Monroe in Gentlemen is the breathy and
velvety voice she uses.  Many of her lines would not have been nearly as
funny if she spoke in clear and more intelligent voice.  In fact, she
sounds like she is over-enunciating her words, which makes her seem as if she
is trying very hard to be smart, but isn’t quite making it.  However, as
we find out, Lorelei “can be smart when it’s important” and is perhaps rather
intelligent underneath the dumb blonde exterior.  Monroe certainly
portrays her that way.  When Monroe is silent or is listening, she isn’t
passively acting.  She is still engaged in her character, reacting to the
others on camera.  She lets the audience glimpse the smarter side of
Lorelei in these times.  Monroe lets Lorelei internalize what is going on
around her instead of simply standing there as the wide-eyed beauty.  Many

“dumb blonde” actresses don’t give their character the kind of depth that
Monroe inherently blends into her character.  Joshua Logan, who directed
Monroe in Bus Stop (1956), said, “Monroe is as near genius as any actress I
ever knew.  Watch her work.  In any film.  How she rarely has to
use words.  How much she does with her eyes, her lips, with slight, almost
accidental gestures… Monroe is pure cinema” (Victor 171).

Twentieth Century, Monroe’s studio, wanted to follow up the success of
Gentlemen and showcase their new film technologies CinemaScope and Stereo
Sounds.  The film, How To Marry a Millionaire (1953), would showcase three
of the studio’s biggest female stars: Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn
Monroe.  Studio executives thought this would be the perfect trio to carry
this film and to get audiences away from their new televisions.  This
movie seemed to be a horizontal step for Monroe but it actually allowed her to
develop her comedic skills.  In Gentlemen, Monroe created laughs through
perfectly timed looks and lines.  Millionaire was a platform for more
slapstick, physical comedy.  As the “blind-as-a-bat” Pola, Monroe walked
into walls, followed the wrong man in a suit, and even got on the wrong plane
to follow a patch-wearing man she thought simply had a black eye.

Monroe had a knack for doing more than the blocking and scripting told
her.  The writer cannot script the priceless looks of surprise,
embarrassment, and vacancy that Monroe could affect so well.  The scene
with Pola and Freddy on the plane is a perfect example of the range of
expressions that Monroe’s face can adopt, most surely not scripted.  Pola
reads her book upside down and can’t even tell that the man sitting next to her
is wearing glasses.  Her reluctance to putting on the glasses is so
evident in her face that her lines are superfluous.  It was Monroe’s use
of facial expressions, and in this case, physical comedy, that gave her
flatly-written characters any depth.

After doing How To Marry a Millionaire in 1953 and River of No Return in 1954,
Monroe was approached about The Seven Year Itch (1955).  However,
Twentieth Century execs needed to get Monroe back to Los Angeles from San
Fransisco so she could start Itch.  The musical There’s No Business Like
Show Business (1954) seemed like the perfect opportunity to get her back in
town.  Some sources report that Monroe had to do Business to even be cast
in Itch (Cunningham 192g).  There’s No Business Like Show Business
contrasted Monroe with Ethel Merman, a founded stage and film actress, which
made Monroe exceedingly nervous.  Musical comedy stars Mitzi Gaynor and
Donald O’Connor were also featured in the movie.  Working with these
experienced actors made Monroe all the more difficult.  This film doesn’t
highlight Monroe’s comedic skills but it does illustrate her ability to adapt
to different roles.

As soon as filming was finished on There’s No Business Like Show Business,
Monroe began shooting The Seven Year Itch (1955).  This film represents a
pivotal time in Monroe’s life.  1955 was the last year that Monroe worked
for Twentieth Century Fox under her low-paying and strict contract. 
Controversial shooting for the iconic subway grating scene became a breaking
point in Monroe’s and DiMaggio’s marriage.  However, The Seven Year Itch
was the eye candy comedy that audiences wanted to see after the tremendous
advertising and promotional schemes in New York.  Directed by Billy Wilder
who would work with Monroe again in Some Like it Hot (1959), the film was
adapted from the successful Broadway play of the same name with the same
frustrated man, Tom Ewell.  Monroe’s character wasn’t given a name but
that didn’t inhibit her from making the role indelibly hers.  Wilder said
of her, “She’s a real kind of image, beyond mere photography.  She had a
natural instinct for how to read a comic line and how to give it something
extra, something special.  She was never vulgar in a role that could have
become vulgar” (Victor 265).

Monroe played the eccentric glamour girl that lives upstairs from Mr. Sherman
(Tom Ewell) in a hot New York apartment building.  Each time the two
interact, which is throughout the entire film, laughs follow.  Monroe’s
wide-eyed naivete and Mr. Sherman’s overly-active imagination combine to create
a hilarious on-screen chemistry.  As “The Girl,” as credits name her,
Monroe had many funny moments that would only be pulled off with the
innocent-yet-sexy feel that she could incorporate into her scenes.  She
calls the plumber to unstick her toe from the tub faucet while still in the
tub, asks for a “big, tall martini,” and admits to putting her underwear in the
icebox.  The lines make these scenes funny.  There are several scenes
in which her expressions and gestures create the laughs.  The look on her
face when Mr. Sherman scrambles up a ladder to get the key to the drawer in
which he has locked his cigarettes is priceless.  Her gleeful squeaking,
singing, and laughing while playing the chopsticks with Mr. Sherman transform a
dull scene into a hysterical one.  The Girl dunks her potato chips in Mr.
Sherman’s champagne and chews with her mouth open.  The facial expressions
and gestures carry these almost unnoticeable bits of the scene.

Monroe also was able to explore other characters in this movie.  She
played in Mr. Sherman’s fantasies and imagination as a few different
women.  She is the sophisticated glamour girl in a tiger-striped evening
gown that is seduced by Sherman’s rendition of Roc Monanoff’s piano
concerto.  She is the gossipy model on television spreading rumors that
Sherman is an adulterous monster.  This movie earned her wonderful
reviews.  The New York Times said, “Miss Monroe brings a special
personality and a certain something or other to the film… [she] clearly plays
the title role.”  The Hollywood Reporter commented, “Monroe is just about
perfect in the role of the pleasantly vacuous and even more pleasantly curved
heroine.”  The New York Daily Mirror said, “Tom Ewell… and La Monroe deserve
most of the credit for carrying off the comedy coup… [Monroe’s] pouting
delivery, puckered lips – the personification of this decade’s glamour – make
her one of Hollywood’s top attractions.”  (Victor 267).

Monroe continued her reign as one of America’s favorite film actresses in the
film Bus Stop (1956).  Although Monroe had quit Twentieth Century Fox to
form her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc., she was lured back to
Fox to work on this picture.  In an unprecedented concession, Monroe was
allowed to approve the director, the script, and the overall design of the
movie, an element of control that very few actresses of the day
possessed.  Many, including Monroe, feel that this was one of her finest
movies, although many of her more dramatic scenes were cut in production. 
Before filming this movie, Monroe had been studying at the Actor’s Studio in
New York under Lee Strasberg.  There she learned “method” acting, a
technique created by Konstantin Stanislavski.  Her performance in Bus Stop
illustrates the hard work she put in, or so says The Los Angeles Examiner when
it commented, “Her stint at the Actor’s Studio in New York certainly didn’t
hurt our girl” (Victor 44).

Aside from the new acting lessons, Monroe’s tremendous control over the film
and her character helped make the film what it is.  She plays a
“chantoose” named Cherie (pronounced with a French accent) who is in and out of
love with the wrong kind of guys and who has literally mapped out her life
towards Los Angeles.  Monroe adds depth to the character by incorporating
little idiosyncrasies such as a stutter in stressful moments, a tendency to
forget lines, and shabby clothing.  This well-developed part earned Monroe
great reviews but she fell short of award nominations.  The Los Angeles
Examiner called her “a terrific comedienne.”  The New York Herald said

“she has a wonderful role, and she plays it with a mixture of humor and pain
that is very touching.”  The New York Times exclaimed, “Hold onto your
chairs, everybody, and get set for a rattling surprise.  Marilyn Monroe
has finally proved herself an actress in Bus Stop” (Victor 44).  It seems
as if Monroe’s acting lessons and grueling work to gain control over her career
paid off.

The British-based film The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) was the first and
only film produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc.  The movie started
out ominously as tensions ran high between everyone: Lawrence Olivier and
Monroe, husband Arthur Miller and Monroe, Milton Greene and Monroe, etc. 

Monroe claimed to be sick throughout much of the shooting and was at an
all-time most difficult because of serious confidence problems.  Olivier
agreed to do the film only if he was allowed to produce and direct it as well
and his style of directing conflicted in the worst way with Monroe’s style of
acting.  However, many critics think that Monroe delivers one of her best
performances in a combination of slap-stick and line comedy.  Her role as
Elsie had humor built in.  She was the fun-loving, giggly chorus girl who
thought that the world’s problems could be fixed with a little love and
romance.  The movie doesn’t end happily but realistically instead, when
the Prince Regent of Carpathia falls in love with, but doesn’t marry, Elsie.

Despite the heavy handed directing of Olivier, Monroe’s comedy shines
through.  She prances around the room in which she dines with the Prince,
trying to avoid the servants whisking chairs, tables, and food this way and
that.  She gets drunk when dining with the Prince and, while he is
insulting America on the phone, she makes an ostentatious and hilarious toast
to President Eisenhower.  As many of her directors noted, Monroe had a
knack for creating humor out of her scene and she does that to perfection in
The Prince and the Showgirl.  The New York World-Telegram and Sun called
the movie “a comic delight.”  The Los Angeles Times said, “This… is Miss
Monroe’s best cinema effort.  Under Olivier’s direction, she reveals a
real sense of comedy.”  The New York Post said, “Marilyn Monroe has never
seemed more in command of herself as a person and comedienne.  She manages
to make her laughs without sacrificing the real Monroe to play-acting” (Victor
240).  Monroe was finally reeling in the accolades she had been craving,
and she was doing it by her own means.

Monroe had a over a year off between The Prince and The Showgirl and Some Like
It Hot (1959) and was welcomed back by excellent reviews for the film that the
American Film Institute voted the funniest film in history.  Monroe was
hesitant to take the role of Sugar Kane in the film because the part seemed to
offer no growth or movement.  Sugar is a dumb blonde, doomed to always
fall in love with a seedy sax player, and cannot tell that the two women she
confides in throughout the movie are really men.  This film was
notoriously her most difficult: she required endless retakes due to forgetting
likes, flubbing blocking, or pure dissatisfaction with her performance, she was
in the throes of full-swing drug addictions, her marriage to Arthur Miller was
becoming increasingly difficult, and she was trying desperately to get
pregnant.  Despite all this, Monroe delivers a fine comedic performance.

In Some Like It Hot, Monroe reprises her dumb blonde role yet again.  Like
Lorelei and Pola, Sugar wants to marry a millionaire.  Like Elsie, Sugar
has an optimistic and romantic view of life.  Like The Girl and Cherie,
she is na├»ve and innocent.  Somehow though, Sugar is entirely different
from Lorelei, Cherie, Elsie, Pola, and the Girl.  As a method actress,
Monroe would find a motivation for her character.  Perhaps that helped to
differentiate between the reincarnations of the dumb blonde.  Sugar isn’t
as glamorous as some of her characters, yet every inch as loveable and vulnerable. 

She wants so badly to meet the perfect man that she looks past the
disguises.   Monroe played well off of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis
and the timing between the three was perfect.  The critics noticed it
too.  The New York Times said, “[Monroe’s] a comedienne with that
combination of sex appeal and timing that just can’t be beat.”
   
Although Monroe longed to be a serious actress, the film industry has benefited
greatly from her contributions as a comedienne.  She brilliantly combined
sex and humor, grace and clumsiness, brains and fluff.  Although she
suffered severe inferiority complexes, paralyzing stage fright, gripping
paranoia, and acute insomnia, none of it shows in her movies.  She was
able to mingle vulnerability, sensuality, innocence, and sexuality that made
her America’s and, indeed, the world’s most sought after and loved female
star.  The critics didn’t recognize her enough though.  She was
nominated twice and won twice for Best Foreign Actress, but received only one
widely recognized Golden Globe for Best Actress in Some Like It Hot
(1959).  Post-humously, Monroe has continuously ranked high on lists and
polls of top sex symbols and two of her movies, Some Like It Hot and All About
Eve rank fourteen and sixteen respectively on The American Film Institute’s
list of America’s 100 Greatest Movies.

Unfortunately, Monroe rarely heard praise for her work.  Even when she
did, it did nothing to boost her confidence.  She had a traumatic
childhood and a rise to fame haunting her every move.  From a mentally ill
mother to a non-existent and unidentified father, from a series of bad foster
homes to orphanages, from virtually no name to the world’s most widely known
sex symbol, Monroe’s life worked against her.  Her one passion in life was
to act.  She said, “I didn’t want anything else.  Not men, not money,
not love, but the ability to act” (Steinem 69).  Indeed, Monroe did get
what she wanted and nothing else.  Monroe had men’s eyes, but couldn’t
find one whose heart and soul could understand her.  Money always eluded
Monroe as one of the lowest paid and yet most popular movie stars of her
time.  Love and the lack thereof in Monroe’s life caused many of the
crippling problems she encountered, and ultimately may have led her to overdosing
on barbiturates and killing herself.

Many people associate Marilyn Monroe with the dumb blonde, a part she played
often but played well.  In each of her movies, she seemed to almost act
out a scene in her life.  In There’s No Business Like Show Business, she must
let down her date in order to haggle with producers and directors over
costumes.  She must also wrangle her way onto the stage of the club at
which she hat checks so she can catch the eye of a talent scout.  Monroe
had experiences similar to these.  Lorelei said in Gentlemen Prefer
Blondes  that she “can be smart when it’s important” as could Monroe,
especially when it came to her career.  She made excellent decisions for
herself and successfully created her own production company that greatly
increased her revenues.  Cherie in Bus Stop merely wanted to find a man
that will love her and support her, but not try to change her.  Monroe’s
quest for this kind of man proved fruitless:  DiMaggio wanted Monroe to
quit the show business and Miller wasn’t strong enough to support Monroe and
her addictions, complexes, and issues.  As Elsie in The Prince and The
Showgirl (1957), she wanted more love and romance in the world.  Monroe
could have stood a bit more of that in her life as well.  Finally, as
Sugar in Some Like It Hot (1959), she wanted to find the man who will sweep her
off her feet, much like Cherie.  Monroe never did find that man.

Some critics and fans of Monroe assert that she wasn’t even acting at
all.  John Huston, one of her directors, said, “She went right down into
her own personal experience for everything, reached down and pulled something
out of herself that was unique and extraordinary” (Steinem 95).  Monroe
considered “Marilyn Monroe” as merely an identity that she could turn on and
off.  No one knew the real Norma Jeane.  She was bottled inside of
Monroe.  When acting then, Monroe was forced to play three roles: Monroe
playing the role through Norma Jeane.  This may be one reason why it is so
hard to pinpoint what it is about Monroe that attracts the public to her. 

She is full of contradictions, yet when one watches her on screen, one wants to
see her happy, protected, and winning out in the end.  Monroe’s whole life
was centered around earning respect and love.  She is reported as saying,
“I’m not interested in money, I just want to be wonderful” (Victor 202).

And wonderful she was.  Monroe, since her death, has been one of the most
documented women in film history.  Her beauty, her sexuality, her mystery,
her troubled life, and her tragic death all combine to make her also one of the
most fascinating figures of the twentieth century.   Monroe left her
mark on film as a gorgeous and gifted actress and comedienne and on the
twentieth century as a truly one of a kind woman.

Works Cited
Cunningham, Ernest.  The Ultimate Marilyn.  Renaissance Books: Los Angeles,CA. 1998.
Quart, Leonard and Albert Auster.  American Film and Society Since 1945: Second Edition.  Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT.  1991.
Steinem, Gloria.  Marilyn, Norma Jeane.  Henry Holt & Co.: New York.  1986
Victor, Adam.  The Marilyn Encyclopedia.  The Overlook Press: New York.  1999.

Filmography

Little Women, George Cukor (1933)
Adam’s Rib, George Cukor (1939)
Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder (1950)
All About Eve, Joseph Mankiewicz (1951)
Steel Helmet, Samuel Fuller (1951)

High Noon, Fred Zinneman (1952)
Singin’ In The Rain, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly (1952)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks (1953)
How To Marry a Millionaire, Jean Negulesco (1953)
On The Waterfront, Elia Kazan (1954)

There’s No Business Like Show Business, Walter Lang (1954)
Guys & Dolls, Joseph Mankiewicz (1955)
Oklahoma, Fred Zinneman (1955)
The Seven Year Itch, Billy Wilder (1955)
The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille (1956)

Bus Stop, Joshua Logan (1956)
The Prince and The Showgirl, Lawrence Olivier (1957)
Ben Hur, William Wyler (1959)
Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder (1959)
Let’s Make Love, George Cukor (1960)
Something’s Got To Give, George Cukor (1962) (unfinished)
My Fair Lady, George Cukor (1964)

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